6th May 2020: Thinking about constraints

My hands are still incredibly stiff and painful. It’s unlikely I’ll get much more embroidery or drawing done this week – though I may manage some looser freehand sketching in a few days. The repetitive fine detail of the embroidery I worked yesterday and pattern drawings I’ve been doing in the evenings has physically damaged my hands – at least temporally.

This got me thinking about the physical resonances between myself and the original Blackwork embroiderers, hitting my limits and wondering how they dealt with theirs. I wonder if they experienced similar problems – I’m thinking of all the other activities that are part of my experience that wouldn’t have been a factor, using computer keyboard, my damaged eyesight from computer screens and reading small text in bad light… it’s obviously impossible to know if these have affected me and impossible to know if the original embroidery has suffered similar limitations – how can I know if years of embroidery from a young age would have had a positive or detrimental effect, clothing and furniture affecting posture, lack of magnifiers and electric light… So many factors!

Let me think about the physicality of working so finally and how that might have damaged my neck and hands. Firstly, the fine weave of this 60TPI fabric means I have to get my eyes closer to it, I have to clip magnifiers onto my glasses and hunch over the embroidery hoop. I put the hoop onto a table clamp to keep it as a fixed position so I can work two handed – this means working with my right hand beneath the fabric and I left on top as opposed to doing all the work with my right hand and using the left to hold the frame or hoop. Working two handed is faster and should create less strain on the fingers as working shared between them. However, working at this fine scale on a fixed hoop, I don’t find myself using two handed technique – the minute control required means I tend to do the majority of the work with my right hand anyway and it puts me in a hunched position in order to get close enough to see. Another problem is the fine control required makes the stitching slower, there’s more gentle prodding of the cloth with the needle tip to find the correct gap in the weave – meaning of fingers are in a static clenched position for longer.

So what can I do to try and solve, or at least mitigate, these physical constraints? The first option might be to remove the hoop from the clamp when working at this scale. This would mean my right hand is doing most of the work but I can bring the fabric closer to my eyes, meaning a less hunched posture and less ‘prodding’ with the needle. In fact, now I think about it, I’ve only worked on this scale of fabric in this way before – this is the first time I’ve used a fixed frame with 60 TPI cloth. The other thing I could try it’s just working on a larger scale cloth. I have some ideas I really want to make as large pieces and I think working on them in fine cloth would end up destroying me or remain unfinished. This is a huge compromise though, the abandonment of similar materials to that of the historic technique… I need to think about what this does in terms of ‘authentic’ response, the materials and physical experience…

I could also, quite simply, limit my embroidery time. This would also apply to my detailed drawings. I would obviously, get less done and my obsessive ‘hyperfocus’ would need to be checked – when I get into something I lose myself in it, time disappears, it’s almost an addictive urge to continue, I have a compulsion to go back to it when I stop – I’m even itching to embroider now, despite the pain in my hands! But this might be interesting in itself – the act of stitching as a marker of time (an idea has just occurred to me – do some basic time tests like 1 Hour Quilt!?). I think this will also need to apply to some of my drawings. I started to draw out the patterns from T.230.1929 on a 3 mm grid, to look at how these solid patterns could be broken down – something in my mind about the structure of decay as design – but its proving to be equally straining on my hands, and if I am limiting my time spent of fine work I’d rather embroider! Instead, perhaps I could look at doing this design work digitally – this will have implications for my thinking about the hand stitched and hand drawn line – maybe with a view to printing them into books or doing something interactive?

I also briefly thought about limiting my writing by hand, instead typing or dictating but when I tried this morning to write this journal entry I couldn’t seem to get my thoughts to flow. There is something in my habit of writing my thinking out long-hand, it sort of slows my thinking process down, giving me space to wander around an idea – these journal entries, written out long-hand with an ink pen, are almost streams of consciousness, a space to reflect, wander and digress – here, I write uninhibited . There is something important to me in this way of working, writing things down slowly, going back later to write up and edit – it’s why I leave a few days (at least!) between writing my journal entries up as these blog posts. There is also something more basically tactile about writing with a fountain pen, ‘feeling’ the ink stain the paper, and I like having physical stacks of notebooks – these are important objects to me, I have every sketchbook and notebook I have ever filled since I was a teenager, keeping them with me throughout multiple house moves when many other things got lost!

That was a bit of a digression! But something else occurred to me about the time to make embroidery, the implications of limiting that time and the resonances with the historic embroiderers – how would the experience of physical constraints and need for rest (limiting embroidery time) be different for the amateur and professional embroiderer? The act of embroidery being optional for the former but vital for the later – the professional, I assume, would be unable to limit their embroidery time, needing to stitch for longer and more frequently to make a living – so is their something in the pain and restricted movement I am currently experiencing that might imply something about the economics of social class?


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